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October 19, 2003 by AK

Germans as Victims

The title of this entry refers both to Lilli Marleen’s recent post and an article by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. Lilli’s post ignited a sprightly discussion, which in some ways resembles this one at Paul Jané’s AgitProp.

The first thing I’d like to do is to make myself clear. Germany, as a country, was not a victim of WWII. No way. On the contrary, the millions of Germans civilians who died and suffered in the 1940s, were victims of the war. These include civilians killed by bombs, women raped by (mostly Soviet) soldiers, Germans expelled from their ancestral lands, refugees killed on their journey westwards, and many others. Germany has every right to mourn their fate, to remember their ordeal, and to erect monuments to her dead, even next to Holocaust memorials. Pain and agony are universal privileges of the mortals.

The Allies’ responsibility is another matter. There’s a Russian saying, s bol’noy golovy na zdorovuyu, literally, “from a sick head to a healthy one” – that is, shifting responsibility from the real culprit to someone else. First, WWII was fought against all rules of warmaking, and it was Germany which first broke them, thereby assuming the blame for what ensued. It should not have expected the Allies, on either the East or even the West, to play gentlemen. Second, in a war like that, a strategist who believes he is saving a million of his compatriots by killing a million of enemy citizens, is acting within acceptable moral limits. It doesn’t matter much who those enemy citizens are. Third, the Allies’ motives and premises in deciding to commit each of the “suspect” acts should be thoroughly researched before accusations get thrown around. It is too easy to presume Hamburg and Dresden were demolished just because the Allies wanted to instill fear in the German populace (or, in the case of Dresden, not let the city fall into Soviet hands undestroyed). Let’s take a look at the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff now.

The son of a Romanian father and a Ukrainian father, Alexander Marinesko grew up in good old Odessa. He became a ship’s boy at 13 and joined the navy in 1933. Soon after war began, he earned a reputation as one of the most audacious and successful submarine commanders in the Baltics; by 1945, he was promoted to Captain third rank (= a major). In January, 1945, he was stationed in Turku, a Finnish port the Soviet navy was then using as a base. Marinesko was a pain in his superiors’ backs: too independent, proud, and not exactly a teetotaler. Finally, an overt affair with a Finnish-Swedish lady (some sources say it was a three-day drinking spree) was about to get him in serious trouble. But submarine aces were in high demand, and his bosses decided to give him another chance: Marinesko was sent to sea on yet another hunting mission. The S-13 sub he commanded spent 20 days in the area designated by the top brass, but no German ships appeared. Marinesko, who probably loathed to come back empty-handed, broke the orders, left the area and embarked on a wild hunt. On January 30, he sank the Wilhelm Gustloff, a giant passenger liner, with just three torpedoes. On February 10, the S-13 also sank the General von Streuben, an auxiliary cruiser.

Lilli details the casualties and types of passengers in her post (here’s a survivor’s account; this is a less impassioned report); note that there were at least 1,000 servicemen on board. Günter Grass, who wrote a novel centered on the attack, believes there were 10,000 people on the Gustloff; in any case, 7,000 to 8,000 of them were refugees. Only about 1,000 of the total survived; most of the dead were women, children, and the elderly. Many of the able military men abandoned the “women and children first” principle in the panic. The Gustloff disaster pales the Titanic both by the sheer number of casualties and by the death rate of women and children.

Let’s look at Marinesko’s behavior now, from a legal and moral standpoint. I can’t be quite impartial here, but I’ll still say Wilhelm Gustloff almost certainly was a legitimate military target, not a Red Cross ship (as Grass concedes, too). Technically speaking, the Gustloff was an auxiliary navy ship equipped with anti-aircraft guns. It was sunk in the area that the Germans themselves declared a zone of military activity, threatening to attack indiscriminately any foreign ship there. The passenger liner had been used as a military transport ship since the start of the war. Marinesko knew that the Germans were evacuating their troops from East and West Prussia by sea. Even if there was a red cross or some such mark on the board of the Wilhelm Gustloff – which I strongly doubt, for it had stopped being a hospital ship in 1940 – it could not been seen in the dark from the submarine, which spotted the liner at 8 or 9 pm.

From a purely moral point, was Marinesko’s decision to attack acceptable? As an officer on duty, he was supposed to take an unidentified ship for an enemy ship. Then, it was his duty to attack. Did he suspect there were kids on board the liner? We have no way of telling; most likely, he pictured it packed with soldiers and party bosses (who, indeed, were among the passengers). Had Marinesko known how many innocent people he was about to kill, would he have spared the Gustloff? Well, his soul is not mine; I know nothing of his except that it left a fifty-year-old, cancer-ridden body forty years ago. Thinking of the dead children floating legs-up in their life jackets, exactly as they were thrown into the water, I try to convince myself that, if I had been in command of the S-13, I’d do something to avoid attacking – even at a risk to my life.

But forgetting the poor kids and focusing just on the women, I get ambivalent: I start picturing those well-fed, broad-boned frauen who must have fondly re-read letters from their husbands describing how they hanged another guerilla girl or bombed a Russian hospital. And comparing the number of Soviet hospitals, schools, refugee columns and barges the Nazis razed, with the Gustloff casualties – even with all the 35,000 or 40,000 dead in the Prussia rescue effort, when 2 million were successfully transported to central Germany by sea – all I can say is the Wilhelm Gustloff was bound to destruction.


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